Wrestling with God: What are Matters of Life and Death, Good and Evil, in the Pentateuch?

by Daniel S. Diffey


Abstract: The Bible opens with a picture of a good creation that quickly becomes marked by death and evil due to the actions of Adam and Eve. The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, represent these same themes of life and death—and good and evil—at important junctures.  The culmination of these themes come at the end of the Pentateuch when Moses presents the people of Israel with the options of life and good or death and evil.  The structure of the Pentateuch shows that God wants life, not death, and good, not evil for his people. This paper argues that the Pentateuch ends with Moses pleading with a new generation of Israelites to not be like Adam and Eve, and thus choose good. They can do this by choosing to follow God’s commands.

Keywords: Good, evil, life, death, Moses, Deuteronomy, God

Note: This is a shorted form of a paper that was presented at the ETS Annual meeting in Denver, CO on November 15, 2022. That paper is titled, “A Holy Plea: The Use of Good and Evil in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and the Pentateuch.”


A prominent aspect of the macro-level structure of the Pentateuch is an inclusio that is formed between the creation narrative in Genesis 1-3 and the end of Moses’s speech in Deuteronomy 30.[1] The Pentateuch opens with multiple references to the goodness of creation and a command for Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequence of disobedience Adam is told would be death. Moses’s speech at the close of the Pentateuch, culminating in Deuteronomy 30:15-20, draws continuity to the opening of the Pentateuch through the use of micro-level indicators.[2] Some of these same indicators also appear at the close of Genesis and the opening of Deuteronomy, indicating that they are part of the larger macro-structure of the Pentateuch.

There are several lexical points of contact that serve as micro-level indicators between the opening of the Pentateuch in Genesis 1-3 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20. Most prominent is the repetition of the words good (טוֹב), evil (רַע), life (חָיָה), and death (מָוֶת), both the beginning and end of not only the Pentateuch but also the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy. Moses uses the same language at the beginning and end of the Pentateuch intentionally to cause the reader to connect these texts, thereby revealing authorial intent. Moses is pleading with a new generation that grew up in the wilderness to not be like Adam and Eve, that is, to choose life by obeying God so that they could dwell in the land, instead of being exiled or excluded from it.

Good and Evil, Life and Death in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Genesis 1-3

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Moses uses the language of good, evil, life, and death in order to draw the reader’s mind back to the creation narrative. In Deuteronomy 30:15, Moses tells the generation that grew up in the wilderness and is about the inherit the Promised Land that God is giving them the option of life and good or death and evil.[3] In verse19, Moses again sets the choice before the people, but this time merely mentions that the choice is between life and death. The word “life” is then repeated again in verse 19, with the exhortation to “choose life.” In verse 20, God is then described as their life.[4] Through the use of these words Moses is drawing the reader back to the creation narrative, which shares the same vocabulary.

In the creation narrative, life, death, good, and evil are primarily associated with trees in the Garden. The tree of life is mentioned in Genesis 2:9; 3:22, 24.[5] The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is referenced in Genesis 2:9, 17; 3:5, 22. In Genesis 2:17 Adam is told that, if he eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “dying you will die.” In this narrative, Adam and Eve are given a choice and they choose death and evil.[6] Moses, by connecting back to these words and ideas in Genesis 2-3, makes a clear parallel between the choice of Adam and the choice that the new Israelite generation has as they are about the enter the land in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. But this language of good, evil, life, and death is not just confined to beginning and end of the Pentateuch.

Good and Evil, Life and Death in Genesis 50 and Deuteronomy 1

The language of good, evil, life, and death frames both the book of Genesis and the book of Deuteronomy. As noted above, the book of Genesis opens with the command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or else they would die. At the end of Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that God had sent him to Egypt to preserve life (מִחְיָה; Genesis 45:5). Then in Genesis 50:20, Joseph reiterates to his brothers that what they meant for evil, God meant for good. Through God’s good plan, the people are kept alive, even when the brothers had chosen evil. Authorial intent is revealed by the microlevel indicators of the repetitions of these words and ideas. Through the structure of Genesis—with a picture of good, evil, life, and death at both the beginning and end—Moses is showing that Adam and Eve’s decision to choose death and evil is being reversed by God’s work of good and the preservation of life.[7]

Deuteronomy 1:34, 39 repeat and heighten the language of good and evil. In Deuteronomy 1:34, Moses makes it clear that no one from the older evil generation was able to enter into the good land. Then in 1:39, he says that the wilderness generation was only allowed to enter because they have no “knowledge of good and evil.” The parallel to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appears to be clear here.[8] While Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the people in Deuteronomy 1 are able to enter the land due to their lack of knowledge of good and evil. As has already been seen above Deuteronomy 30:15-20, which occurs near the end of Deuteronomy, Moses uses these same words and ideas. Deuteronomy begins and ends with the same micro-level indicators that were present at the beginning and end of the book of Genesis, meaning that the first and the last book of the Pentateuch begin and end with the same micro-level indicators. Moses’s rhetorical appeal to the wilderness of Genesis in Deuteronomy 30 thus connects the beginning and end of the entire Pentateuch. In the beginning Adam and Eve chose death and evil, in the end Moses appeals to the people to choose life and good.

Authorial Intent

These micro-level indicators—the repetition of the words good, evil, life, and death—convey authorial intent. Moses is connecting the choice that he is presenting to the children of Israel about to enter the Promised Land with the choice that was given to Adam and Eve. Hamilton notes that “when patterns of historical correspondences are repeated across narratives, expectations accumulate and cause escalation in the perceived significance of the repeated similarities and patterns.”[9] Through the repetition of good, evil, life, and death, not only at the beginning and end of the Pentateuch, but also at the end of Genesis and the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses causes the reader’s expectation to accumulate. Terrence Fretheim briefly notes how Moses accomplishes this through the bracketing of ideas in Genesis and Deuteronomy:

The ending of the Pentateuch has parallels with the beginning, providing brackets for the whole. This doubling constitutes an intensification of these themes. The situation of the first human beings standing before God on the morning of creation corresponds to that of the newly redeemed people of God on the eve entry into the land.[10]

These ideas form an inclusio that builds expectation for Moses’s plea in Deuteronomy 30:15-20.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Moses is pleading with the Israelite generation that is about to enter the land not to be like Adam, who chose death and evil and was expelled from the Garden. Instead, they are to choose life and good by obeying God. Adam disobeyed and was exiled from the land, but if this generation keeps the commands of God, then they will “dwell in the land” (Deut. 30:20). Sailhamer similarly writes that “Moses closes this section with several allusions to the . . . Garden of Eden. His purpose is to draw a comparison between the first work of God in providing a ‘good land’ for his people and the situation of Israel as they prepare to enter again into God’s good land”[11]


Deuteronomy 30:15-20 intentionally uses the language of good and evil and life and death from Genesis 1-3 to form an inclusio within the Pentateuch. Not only does the language of good and evil frame the Pentateuch, but it also frames the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 1:39 says that the Israelite children are able to enter the land because they do not know good and evil. Beyond the word pair of good and evil there is other language from the creation narrative found in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 that furthers the connections between Genesis 1-3 and Deuteronomy 30. The rhetorical effect is that Moses was pleading with the people to not be like Adam and Eve, but to obey God’s word so that they will not be expelled from the land. 


[1] This paper will take a typological approach using the categories from James M. Hamilton Jr. Due to the length limitations of this paper, this typological approach will be assumed but not defended. Hamilton argues that both micro-level and macro-level indicators indicate authorial intent. This is seen in the Pentateuch, which Hamilton notes is self-referential and, moreover, that Moses’s composition of the Pentateuch sets up a typological paradigm that is replicated by later biblical authors. See James M. Hamilton Jr. Typology: Understanding the Bible’s Promised-Shaped Patterns: How Old Testament Expectations are Fulfilled in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2021), 1-21.  

[2] Hamilton describes micro-level indicators as lexical points of contact, quotations of phrases or lines; similarities in event sequence; and consonance in covenantal or salvation-historical import (Hamilton, Typology, 25). In the longer form of the paper, there are further connections made to quotations of phrases and lines, a comparison of event sequence, and a discussion of escalation in the salvation-historical context of these texts. 

[3] The Hebrew for each word begins with the definite article: אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע.

[4] The root חיה is also used as a verb in Deuteronomy 30:19.

[5] The tree of life also has the definite article before the word life: עֵץ הַחַיִּים. Outside of the references to life in Genesis 2-3 and Deuteronomy 30, there are only four other times that the word life appears with the definite article in the Pentateuch: Leviticus 14:6, 51, 52, when it references the הַמַּיִם הַחַיִּים , and Numbers 17:13, when Moses stood between the living and the dead.

[6] To be technical, the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was given to Adam in Genesis 2:17 before “the woman” was created in 2:21-25. She was not given the name Eve until Genesis 3:20.

[7] The beginnings and ending of narratives are also important in revealing authorial intent and rhetorical strategy. The book of Genesis provides somewhat of a reversal ending from what happens in Genesis 3. On the topic of narratvies and authorial intent, see Yairah Amit, Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 33-45; Yairah Amit, “Endings-Especially Reversal Endings,” Scriptura 87 (2004): 213-26.

[8] Paul A. Barker is not sure about the connections of good and evil throughout the Pentateuch but does see Deuteronomy 1:39 as a clearer point of connection writing: “It is unclear whether any allusion to Genesis 2 and 3 is intended or possible. The expression in 1:39 is the closest anywhere to Genesis 2:17 . . . One cannot fail to notice that as Adam and Eve failed and lost their right to their place with God, so did the earlier generations.” Barker, The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy: Faithless Israel, Faithful Yahweh in Deuteronomy, Paternoster Biblical Monographs (Milton Keys, UK: Paternoster, 2004), 29.

[9] Hamilton, Typology, 25.

[10] Terrence Fretheim, The Pentateuch (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 56. Fretheim also notes the connections of life and death by writing, “In addition, the prohibition given humankind in Gen 2:16-17, the response to which means life or death, parallels Moses’ words to Israel about the commandment (Deut 30:11-20).” Thank you to Jason DeRouchie for pointing out these comments by Fretheim.

[11] John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 474.

Daniel S. Diffey serves as Department Chair of the Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies programs and is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew within the College of Theology at GCU. He has an MDiv in Christian Ministry, and earned a PhD in Old Testament. He has been at GCU since 2012 and teaches various Bible classes. His interests are in the area of Old Testament and biblical theology. He is married to Anne and has three children.  

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